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  • Writer's picturePage Brooks

Chaplaincy and Pastors: Lessons Learned in Engaging the Postmodern, Multi-cultural World

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

Rev. Jeff Pate is a hospital chaplain in New Orleans, LA and serves as assistant pastor at Canal Street Church: A Mosaic Community (ECC). He graduated with a M.Div. from Regent College and is a board certified chaplain. He has previously written articles for The Home Altar.

Dr. Page Brooks is an Army Reserve chaplain and senior pastor of Canal Street Church: A Mosaic Community (ECC), in New Orleans, LA. He graduated with a M.Th. from the University of Stellenbosch, and with a Ph.D. in theology from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as a ministry-based Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture. His research focuses on postmodernity, urban theology, and pluralism.


Chaplaincy in a postmodern, post-Christian world may look different than the way chaplaincy was perceived in past decades. In the same way, pastoring in a postmodern world, post-Christian world does not look the same way it did a few decades ago. What about this postmodern world presents opportunities and challenges for chaplains and pastors?

Naomi Padget and Janet McCormack, in their popular book on chaplaincy entitled The Work of the Chaplain, give an excellent definition of chaplaincy by offering comparisons with what they call “community clergy.” Whereas community clergy minister to a certain set of people, usually based out of a building, chaplains minister outside the walls of the church. Community clergy are given authority by a denomination or local church to do ministry in a local church. Chaplains, on the other hand, are given authority by both a denomination and an institution to do ministry with staff, family, and clients of the institution. Chaplaincy involves pastoral, prophetic, and priestly ministry roles all at the same time, serving people who are religious or non-religious. Chaplains enter into a situation with no personal agenda only to be a servant to whom they minister.[1]

The following essay shows how elements of the chaplaincy may help all clergy to build a bridge for engagement to the postmodern, post-Christian world. At the same time, the “Five-Fold Test” of the Evangelical Covenant Church provides an excellent litmus test for engagement in a postmodern, multi-cultural world. This essay combines elements of the Five-fold Test, along with understanding the characteristics of a postmodern worldview, to help chaplains and pastors engage the contemporary culture.

Defining the Postmodern World

To define postmodernism, think first about modernity. Modernity was a period of intellectual history in which the focus was on the reliance upon the human mind to understand and even control the world. The Enlightenment of Europe awoke Western civilization from its intellectual slumber because ancient sources of philosophy and other works were rediscovered. From the Enlightenment, modernity was birthed as people came out of the Dark Ages and relied upon the mind and intellect for studying the world around them. One example of modernity is Isaac Newton, who relied upon science to understand phenomena such as gravity. Through study and experimentation, Newton understood the natural laws at work around him.

Modernity was a period of history in which the mind, intellect, and logic were the foundations of engagement with the world. For example, modernity challenged religion because religion was based upon faith instead of the intellect. Modernists read the Bible through the lens of logic, and as a result, for example, miracles were discounted. Modernity sought order, symmetry, organization, and hierarchy in almost every aspect of life.

Modernity reigned on until the early part of the twentieth century. Toward the end of this period, society started to see the limits of modernity and of where reason could take them. It was hoped that reliance upon the human mind could provide solutions to poverty, disease, famine, and other ailments of society. These expectations came to an end with a few significant events in history. One prime example was the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki toward the end of World War II. Where had all the advances in science lead humanity? To a device that could literally wipe off entire cities from the face of the earth. Any hope of modernity and the human mind leading humanity to more solutions quickly dissipated.

Though postmodernity has its historical roots going back nearly two centuries, it was after World War II that postmodern thought hit mainstream culture. Instead of the mind and intellect, humanity now turned to anything else that could provide answers...emotions, whims, experience, etc. The Hippie movement soon caught on in the Western United States and spread across the country. Changes soon came to the average American family that challenged traditional family values. Postmodernity sought to challenge traditional authority and seek anything other than order. It was everything opposite of modernity.

American society is still feeling the effects of postmodernity, and even a few cultural movements that have come after it. But what all does this have to do with chaplaincy and pastoral ministry? Postmodernity created a new cultural environment to which the church must respond and engage. In response some churches have withdrawn from society, and still others have engaged so much that compromises in witness and doctrine have occurred. Chaplaincy ministry and "chaplaincy-style" pastoral ministry can thrive in our postmodern society because chaplains seek to engage people where they live, work, and play.

How has postmodernity created an environment for engagement through chaplaincy ministry? First, because postmoderns question authority, they also question organized religion. They distrust any hierarchy of authority that tells them what to believe or how to practice their religion. Almost every mainline denomination has experienced decline in the past few decades, and one factor in this decline is the questioning of organized religion. Chaplains provide ministry to people where they are and meet with them on an individual basis, rather than waiting for people to come to a place of organized religion.

Second, although many people are skeptical of organized religion, most are still interested in spirituality. Postmodernity, though perhaps not a favored influence on the organized church, has allowed a "cafeteria of religions" idea to flourish wherein people choose whatever spirituality suits them. Chaplains provide a personal embodiment of Gospel-centered spirituality for people even as they are searching this "cafeteria of religions."

Third, postmodernity has lead to a questioning of all truth claims and dogmatic statements. Postmoderns are skeptics of organized religion, in part, because the Church preaches foundational truth claims. At the same time, postmoderns are pragmatic in some form because if they see something that works (regardless if it is true) they will engage it. Chaplaincy allows the truth of the Gospel to be lived out in a practical way, engaging people where they are. Chaplains are able to be more relational in nature and less dogmatic verbally. Nevertheless, through their actions, chaplains can live out the truth of the Gospel through their actions, demonstrating to those around them that the gospel of Christ does indeed, “work.”

Fourth, postmoderns emphasize relationships and community to the point that they crave and need relationships. Postmodernity emphasizes the individual, and in doing so has created an environment in which relationships become detached. Technology has enabled this detachment through giving people a false sense of feeling connected, while not really engaging in meaningful relationships. Due to the inherent relational nature of chaplaincy, chaplains are able to overcome the feeling of detachment brought on by the postmodern milieu.

Fifth, postmodernity has created an environment in which people seek their "tribe." In some ways, an individual's search for a tribe is a reaction against postmodern concepts. Postmodernity emphasizes and empowers the individual, yet the individual is still seeking relationships, but in greater numbers. Individuals are searching for meaning and principles in life of "what works." This has lead to a reaction against postmodernity in which individuals now find meaning among various tribes, even if the beliefs and principles of one tribe contradict another tribe. Once again, because of the relational nature of chaplaincy, chaplains are able to engage these communities and "tribes" in various ways. A chaplain no longer sees his or her parish as the limits of where they may do ministry. Wherever there are relationships in a community, the chaplain has work to do.

Last, postmodernism has created and bred an environment in which multiculturalism can flourish. Cultures or races that were once marginalized are being placed back at the center of society. Cultures and races that were once pushed to the edges are now being given a voice and space to be heard. Postmodernity has created an awareness of once marginalized groups and now the playing field is being leveled. With the additional forces of urbanization and immigration, the ethnicities of the world are often mixed in closer spaces, particularly cities. Individuals, groups, and businesses are celebrating and placing value upon the varieties of cultures rather than simply being mono-cultural. Chaplains are often able to reach such groups in their own environment throughout these spaces without waiting for the people to come through the doors of a church building. [2]

The Five-Fold Test

It is within this postmodern and increasingly multicultural context that the Evangelical Covenant Church is seeking to live faithfully. In response to our given cultural situation and our need for intentional engagement with culture, the ECC developed the Five-fold Test. This test was developed as an intentional relational tool to strengthen and assess the Covenant’s awareness to the mission and unity of Christ and Christ’s church. The mission of the Church as it seeks to live out the “now but not yet” of the Messianic reign, is lived out in many different spheres of society: parish ministry, international missions, family life, singleness, work, and everyday life. Therefore, the Five-fold Test gives guidance to fulfilling the mission of Christ’s church in the contexts “in which we are held.”[3]

Chaplains and Clergy Engaging in Ministry

Pastorally, we write from two primary contexts: chaplaincy and parish ministry. The scope, then, from this point, will be to converse between the Five-fold Test, the postmodern culture, and the above-mentioned contexts. Each of the five points of the test will be covered, assessing whether or not chaplains are operating under the convictions of each point. Each segment will also suggest ways in which a chaplain’s experience can help inform the local church as she moves forward in that respective area.

The first area of assessment regarding intentional ministry within a growing multicultural context is population. A revised tag line of this point considering a chaplain's context would read, “Are chaplains reaching increasing numbers of people among increasing numbers of populations?” Broadly speaking, absolutely. Chaplain ministry is contextual, and like parish ministry, the population diversity is dictated by the demographics of the locale. While one can imagine various chaplain settings limited in ethnic diversity, our work is with ever-increasing populations, contingent only on the diversity of a hospital census list, for example, which is made up of a cross section of the given city, state, and region’s demographic.

That said, considering our postmodern context, how can chaplain ministry inform local church ministry concerning population? By reminding us that we are to offer appropriate pastoral care to anyone God brings into our path seeking support. It is an understandable, and at times regrettable, reality that within the fragmentation of our society we seek our own “tribes.” Growing up, my (Jeff’s) parents intentionally exposed me to various social situations and experiences. They believed that if one could handle himself well with many different types of people, he would be well situated in whatever field he chose. They were right. On the day I wrote this I (Jeff) was called to the ICU to check on a family whose loved one was near death. The team was intubating him, and the family were waiting outside. They were from the Midwest, but lived scattered across the U.S. now. So I engaged the “tribe” of the given family and the varying dynamics therein. I also engaged the “tribe” culture of the medical treatment team that is constantly changing depending on what workers are on what shift. Soon after this call I was called to another part of the hospital, another “tribe” of people, this family concerned with the altered mental status of their mother.

Family systems theory is informative when walking into these various “tribes.” The work of Edwin Friedman in Generation to Generation is especially helpful. Friedman, basing his work on Dr. Murray Bowen’s work, makes a parallel between the emotional processes of a congregation with that of the systemic relationships seen in families. In this, he calls for the leader (in our case pastor, chaplain, care-giver) to be a “self-differentiating leader,” or one who directs his or her energy not on changing others, but on staying non-anxious in the midst of anxiety producing situations.[4]

Scripture attests to the call to non-anxiety when over and over again the biblical authors write that God’s people are not to fear or be anxious: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Phil 4:6,7 NASB).[5]

So, interestingly enough, a key for the chaplain in offering pastoral care to anyone has just as much to do with the chaplain’s ability to control his or her own emotional response as it does with the chaplains' ability to relate with many different people. These interpersonal skills are strengths for the chaplain, and strengths that can help inform the local church as it moves forward in our cultural climate. Indeed churches today are ever increasingly called to provide care to various “tribes” of people. Our (Jeff and Page’s) church for example, is ministering to neighbors of European, African, and Hispanic descent, just to name a few. We also have a multi-generational community including people from varying economic backgrounds.

The second area of assessment regarding mission and ministry within our cultural climate is participation. And adapted tag line here could read, “Are chaplains finding ways to engage life together amongst diverse ethnic groups through departmental, system-wide, and regional events, service and fellowship?” In our context, participation is a necessity if one is to survive professionally. In fact, it is impossible to minister to soldiers, patients, families, and staff without relationships and connections. For example, the government is always promoting Equal Opportunity training in various levels of government, and this is now standard training (in Page’s Army Reserve context). Participation happens on interdisciplinary teams (when working with a family regarding end-of-life discussions, for example). It happens amongst other chaplains when transitioning care. It happens with local clergy when the clergy visit their parishioners. It happens during a hospital Code Blue when during active resuscitation the chaplain serves as a liaison between the medical team and the family. It happens at the regional level when chaplains work ecumenically on professional boards for continuing education and certification. It happens nationally when chaplains participate in denominational and professional committees. And this participation is with increasingly diverse populations.

What does chaplaincy contribute to the local church regarding participation amongst diverse groups, and considering a context where many are interested in spirituality? Awareness is the operative word here. Self-awareness is key to the professional chaplain, and it is key to the local church who is moving forward in participation amongst diverse peoples. One of the four areas in which professional board certified chaplains demonstrate competency is called the “Identity and Conduct Competencies” (IDC). There are nine of these. IDC three and four read as follows: “Identify one’s professional strengths and limitations in the provision of pastoral care,” and “articulate ways in which one’s feelings, attitudes, values and assumptions affect one’s pastoral care.”[6] In other words, a healthy sense of self-awareness, awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses, biases and values, is key in the chaplain participating in work among diverse populations. It is also key as local church leaders move forward in addressing systemic and deeply personal ethnic divides. Indeed, even Jesus himself warns that we examine our own heart before looking into the other's (Matthew 7). The “other” in our case may be a person and, when the chaplain or pastor is working with larger systemic issues, may include a particular group’s way of thinking.

Friendman also addresses the importance of self-awareness when working within the context of systems (something both the chaplain and parish minister do). In addressing the role of the “extended family field,” a dynamic within family systems that looks to patterns of our family of origin and extended family to understand present behavior, Friedman writes, “Gaining a better understanding of the emotional process still at work with regard to our family of origin, and modifying our response to them, can aid significantly in the resolution of emotional problems in our immediate family (marriage or parenting) or of leadership problems in a church or synagogue.”[7] For example, if a chaplain walks into a patient’s room and experiences an emotional process while unaware how that process relates to his or her past and family of origin, then he or she is in danger of losing a sense of self-differentiation between themselves and the family in their care. The better ones knows herself, including emotional responses triggered from the parallel process experienced in identifying with a family’s emotional and relational dynamics, the better one is able to offer care to the family without entangling her own emotional needs and fears with those of the family.

This is equally true for the local church pastor offering pastoral care to a family situation that triggers things within himself that remind him of his family of origin. Perhaps he sees something within the family process that reminds him of difficult childhood experiences. Will the pastor respond to his parishioner as a child responding to his parent, or will he, through self-awareness, respond as a loving adult? The more aware the pastor is of his own emotional process, the more aware he is to see clearly in discerning wisely and loving freely his parishioners.

In the same manner, this calls for cultural awareness. What cultural values in our growing up were prescribed as the norm? There are implications here for our preferences in areas such as music choice, topics for conversation, proper or indecent behavior in public interaction, etc. So, our familial and cultural origins inform who we are, for better and for worse, and unless we are aware of the messages they spoke into us, we are likely to judge situations within our parish out of an emotional process rather than a biblically informed one.

So the awareness is emotional, relational, cultural, and theological. If chaplains and pastors are to provide incarnate care in a “cafeteria of religion”, it takes biblical and theological rootedness. In a key biblical passage, Jesus tells his disciples, “ Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing,”(John 15:5, NRSV). To provide care that is life giving, chaplains and clergy must abide in the very source of life, Jesus. Our fruit will derive from our roots.

While professional chaplains vary in their religious and theological backgrounds, the Association of Professional Chaplains recognizes the foundational role theology places in rooting the spiritual care giver. It reads in its first of twenty-nine competencies that the board certified chaplain must “articulate a theology of spiritual care that is integrated with a theory of pastoral practice.”[8]

The third segment of assessment regarding forward motion in ministry unity within a context of growing diversity is that of power. Are chaplains aware of power dynamics and sensitive to influencing positions of power with greater diversity and perspective? Here the operative word for chaplains is presence. A chaplain learns through self-awareness, group learning, reflection, and experience that power dynamics are very real. A chaplain carries a certain authority within the institution by virtue of his or her position, badge, dress, cultural background, etc. He or she must be careful in wielding that power, among the sick and vulnerable, with sensitivity, respect, and wisdom.[9]

In fact, two other competencies read, “Function pastorally in a manner that respects the physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries of others,” and “Use pastoral authority appropriately.”[10] Another competency the professional chaplain must address is that of advocating for those in their care.[11] So power sharing and advocacy are key to the work of chaplains.

One of the most effective ways a chaplain can share power is as one who “comes alongside.” Jesus on the road to Emmaus walks alongside his grieving disciples as he opens the scriptures to them and then reveals himself in the breaking of bread. He exercises authority as one who comes alongside, an image picked up in the sending of the Paraclete (“the one who comes alongside”) empowering Christ followers.

Job’s friends are informative concerning the posture of “coming alongside.” They did a great job helping Job at first, offering the ministry of presence to a deeply grieved friend. William E. Hume, writing on the “sacramental silence” of Job’s three friends the first seven days they were with him, writes, “Though they spoke not a word, their symbolic silence spoke loud and clear. Theirs was a sacramental silence—a non-verbal and yet tangible communication of the spirit.”[12] Applying Job’s friends’ ministry to our lives, he writes, “Most of us have had the experience of not knowing what to say when ministering to someone overcome with grief, and fortunately have had the good sense to say nothing. Our presence spoke for itself and was the basis for whatever words we may have said at a later time.”[13] Where they went wrong was when they started talking while Job was still in deep grief, as they defended God and corrected Job![14]

There are times where talking is appropriate. One does not typically care from a place of total silence. But the words come out of a posture that is sensitive to the needs of the family. So this is a presence not only that comes alongside, but that is pro-actively attentive to the needs of the other. Eugene Peterson calls this “willed passivity” and connects the idea with the act of love. “We learn soon that love does not develop when we impose our will on the other, but only when we enter into sensitive responsiveness to the will of the other, what I am calling willed passivity.”[15]

I (Jeff) remember being called to the Emergency Department (ED) of a family whose daughter was found with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Paramedics had worked on her in the field, and the doctors worked on her in the ED. Her dad did not leave her side. Mom and a friend were understandably beside themselves in the waiting room. In the midst of the trauma, fear, and in the face of death, all I could do was witness in my presence (not my words) to the presence of Christ in their midst. Sadly, the baby did pass away. I was present with them when she did.

Not infrequently when I ask a patient or family member how I can support them, they will say,”Just in being here you already have.” While most local church pastors are not dealing with trauma everyday, they do deal with it, and the posture of their presence will go far more in extending the love of Christ than anything they could say in the midst of the chaos.

Military chaplaincy promotes the idea of “ministry of presence.” When I (Page) go out on maneuvers with my soldiers, I might speak a great deal or not much at all. But, the point is that I am with and in the presence of my soldiers. When a situation does come along in their lives where they want to talk (such as in death), my simple presence has reminded them that they can come to me to speak when they are ready.

The fourth segment of intentional ministry within our culture is pace-setting. With additional perspectives and gifts in our midst, what new ministry opportunities are chaplains best positioned to address? The operative word here is mercy. Daily the chaplain is tapping into the various perspectives and gifts in her midst through the various people she interacts with. A chaplain must be a collaborator as he or she bridges the pastoral needs of a patient or family with the treatment plan and expectations of the healthcare team.

Constantly the chaplain is asking, “What new burdens, gifts, and perspectives does this family or patient bring that can guide the chaplain seeking to initiate and provide pastoral care?”[16] For chaplains this is often approached best with a posture of mercy, and it is often seen, oddly enough, around grief. When there is a death within the hospital, the chaplain adapts to the various backgrounds and racial and familial makeups of the given family. The chaplain steps into unknown family dynamics, quickly assessing the pace-setters within the unit that can help facilitate a non-anxious compassionate grief process.

In Friedman’s section on emotional triangles, he points out that to affect change within a system, it is far more important that “we can maintain a ‘non-anxious presence’, in a triangle” as “such a stance has the potential to modify the anxiety in others.”[17] So it’s also true that to set a pace within an anxious system, the chaplain works with the non-anxious person to help set the pace.[18]

Perhaps it seems unusual to speak of pace-setting in the above mentioned light, but the ECC also realizes these segments are not “structural or mechanical,” but rather develop only as “we relate to each other as sisters in brothers in Christ.”[19] In other words, these segments within the Five-fold Test are advanced relationally. The chaplain is relational at his or her core, continually adapting to the beauty and dynamics of a given family in order to set a pace of compassion and mercy in pastoral care.

Given our milieu where many are questioning truth claims and looking for a living faith, a faith addressing the reality of living life together, how can chaplaincy inform the local church in this respect? During Midwinter 2015, Soong Chan Ra preached on the importance of lamenting in the church.[20] I (Jeff) once remember my beloved professor, James Houston, founding principal of Regent College, state that a person will know joy to the degree that he or she opens themselves up to pain. In other words, a way forward for the church in opening herself to the joy offered in the mosaic of varying ethnicities is to learn to grieve. Learn to grieve a loss of identity; learn to repent from evil. An embrace often necessitates a letting go, and letting go of an identity, in favor of something more whole, requires an awareness of grief in the loss.

Death occurs in hospitals many times during a year. While these occasions are sad, they are not without their joys and triumphs. Once I (Jeff) was called to the room of a comatose patient whose twenty-something year old daughter and son were deciding to withdraw support. The daughter held herself with such poise and grace. She was alert, emotionally aware, and guarded but still present. After being with them we gathered for prayer. Shortly afterwards, as the team was purposefully tending to the bedside, the daughter began to sweetly, softly, and intentionally sing Amazing Grace. She sang three verses a cappella. I tried to keep up with my cold strained voice. When she finished we sat in silence. The sterile room in which we sat was transformed by the daughter's benediction of Christ’s amazing grace. None of us wanted to move. We did not want to desecrate the moment. The term "holding Sacred space" finally made sense.

So the chaplain brings to the grief process a broad base of experiences, aware that there are joys within the sorrows, that their is dignity in a good death, and that there are smiles amidst and beyond the tears. He brings to the church a comfort level in dealing with death. The pastor leading a church through a season of grief is blessed to have a chaplain on staff or within the congregation: one who can help guide the pastor as the pastor guides the church.[21]

The Psalms are informative here too. Walter Brueggemann in his book, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit, observes three movements in our life with God that the Psalms illustrate: being securely oriented, being painfully disoriented, and being surprisingly reoriented.[22] The chaplain is skilled at both observing and walking through these stages (stages of grief, too) with the patient and family, and is thus positioned to help the local church walk through them as well.

The final segment of the Five-fold Test is purposeful narrative. Are chaplains able to incorporate various streams and stories into an overarching history? We do it every day. And what does the chaplain have to offer the local church situated in a postmodern context that emphasizes relationship and community? The operative word here is listening. Daily in the hospital, nursing home, with soldiers or with sailors, the chaplain will take in the various streams of one’s life story to help the care-receiver see a coherent thread running through the emotional and visceral response to the pain, alienation, loneliness, and sadness. And to be fair, it is not that the chaplain even shares with the care-receiver the synthesizing that he did as he listened for the “golden thread” running through a patient’s story. Rather, in the listening and curiosity he creates space for the care-receiver to see more clearly his or her overarching theme, or the presence of God amidst the fragmentation.

Listening is an important response in our life with Christ. In Genesis 1, “God said” and reality was. God speaks the world into being. John 1:1-5, connecting the creation account to the life of Christ, reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men,” (NASB). Connecting the foundational word spoken over creation with the person of Jesus who is holding it all together is Colossians 1:15-17. It reads, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together,” (NASB).

The Word spoken over creation, the Word that has held creation together forever is Jesus. In other words, creation (human and not) carries the mark of the voice of God, and deserves our attention. Listening becomes, then, a response to an awareness of the image of God within others. It becomes a response, a posture, that seeks to honor the Creator by attending to his creation.

Indeed, the greatest commandment in the Bible, the command to love God and others, begins with the command to listen. “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” (Deut 6:4). Mark 12:28-31 summarizes the command when it reads, “‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Indeed our listening begins as we attune our ear to Holy Scripture, and goes beyond in our attentiveness to others. Listening as an act of discipleship and relating with God is foundational to how we love God, and others as ourselves.

Why is listening and being heard important? Story and narrative are extremely important to the postmodern generation. It is not just that chaplains and clergy need to know facts about other people, but rather that chaplains and clergy know people’s stories. Stories communicate experience and emotion, not just cold, hard facts. Listening well is an act of incarnational living, a way to witness to the presence of a personal God.

Occasionally in chaplaincy after offering pastoral care, I (Jeff) will write out a prayer for the care receiver based on their words to me. In one instance I did this for a doctor who shared with me her grief over losing a beloved patient. The doctor commented how thankful she was to receive the prayer. When I inquired what was special about it for her she said, “It was in my own words, and showed me that God heard me.” This struck me with the connection to our act of love in listening as witness to the reality that God hears. Listening well communicates to the other that indeed “God has heard their cries.” The impulse to know God has heard our cries is universal, suggested as common human experience throughout the Psalms. Repeatedly the Psalms read, “Hear our cries, O God.”[23] In listening we can engage in the priestly work of intercession both demonstrating and affirming God’s presence among the hurting.

However, Edward Wimberly in Recalling Our Own Stories, warns caregivers of the “myth of perfection of empathy.”[24] The myth tells us, “It is possible to achieve perfect empathy or reach complete positive regard for another person, without flaw.”[25] Going on he writes, “the emphasis on perfection has led people to describe the effort to achieve empathy as having ‘sucked the life out of the caregiver,’ and as having ‘the potential to contaminate us as caregivers if we have no place to turn to for emotional and spiritual renewal.”[26]

The myth of perfection of empathy has implications for how we minister, and in our case, particularly how we empathize through listening. With all good things there is a limit. In the place of perfection Wimberly prefers the idea of “good enough” empathy. “Good enough empathy is not flawless. Good enough empathy is rooted in an awareness that although we are wounded and hurting, we have taken time to tend to the wounds…This presupposes that we spend time in spiritual renewal, time in spiritual retreat.”[27] Such an approach is realist in nature where performance is “permeated with a grace-filled acceptance of our limitations and flaws (and our strengths).”[28]


Chaplaincy and pastoral ministry have much about which to dialogue. Lessons can be learned through both unique ministries. This essay has focused primarily on what the chaplaincy can offer to pastoral ministry. Chaplains can offered a flawed and grace-filled listening, and merciful, self-aware, presence offered to anyone the Lord brings into his or her path for the sake of the Gospel. The expertise of the chaplain varies from person to person. The skills highlighted here do not constitute the whole of pastoral skills needed to move a church forward in relating well within a diverse setting. However, these skills are core to a chaplain’s identity, and important for the pastor or church leader offering pastoral care in an increasingly diverse, postmodern milieu.

[1]Naomi Padget and Janet McCormack, The Work of the Chaplain (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2006), iv-v. [2]For some excellent resources on postmodernity from an Evangelical perspective, see Millard Erickson, Truth or Consequences: The Promise and Peril of Postmodernity (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2001); and Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 1996). [3]“The Five-fold Test,” available from; Internet; assessed 31 March 2015. [4]Gary Emanuel and Mickie Crimone, forward to Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, by Edwin Friedman (New York: The Guilford Press, 1985), x. [5]C.S. Lewis in Letters to Malcolm, chapter 8, describes anxiety not as sin, but as an affliction. While it’s not within the scope of this paper to go deeper on the differences between anxiety and fear, anxiety is understood here not as the emotional response common to humanity similar to the anxiety Christ felt in the garden of Gethsemane, but that which maintains it’s etiology in a lack of trust in God’s loving-kindness and faithfulness which can produce a type of anxiety. [6]IDC 3 and 4. “Professional Chaplain Competencies” available from; Internet; accessed 31 March 2015. [7]Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: The Guilford Press, 1985), 31. [8]Theory of Pastoral Care Competency 1. “Professional Chaplain Competencies” available from; Internet; accessed 31 March 2015. [9]Within the context of clergy sexual misconduct, but still with wider reaching implications regarding clergy authority, Stanley J. Grenz and Roy D. Bell in Betrayal of Trust: Confronting and Preventing Clergy Sexual Misconduct (2001), address the inherent unequal power dynamics between the minister and congregant (for our purposes also read chaplain and care-receiver), and caution attentive self-awareness on behalf of the minster. See especially Chapter Four, “Misconduct as Betrayal of a Power Trust.” [10]IDC 1 and 2. “Professional Chaplain Competencies” available from; Internet; accessed 31 March 2015. [11]Ibid., IDC 5. [12]William E. Hume, Dialogue in Despair: Pastoral Commentary on the Book of Job (Nashville: Abingdon Press,1968), 23. [13]Ibid. [14]Ibid. [15]Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1989), 108. [16]Language adapted from “The Five-fold Test” available from; Internet; assessed 31 March 2015. [17]Friedman, Generation to Generation, 39. Triangles imply the relational structure between two parties and the caregiver. [18]By talking about “setting a pace” and “ affecting change” within an anxious system, we are not suggesting that chaplains seek to control an environment as much as we are suggesting that when the occasions calls for the chaplain to use his pastoral authority this approach is most affective: non-anxious presence interacting with another non-anxious presence. The chaplain’s non-anxious presence can provide a calming presence that allows the family to feel safe in their grief process. In other words, chaplains should create a climate for freedom to grieve, rather than continuing to unknowingly contribute to a climate of anxiety. [19]”The Five-fold Test” assessed 31 March 2015. [20]Soong Chan Ra, Thursday Morning Message, Evangelical Covenant Church Midwinter Conference, Denver, 29 January 2015. [21]Though we are highlighting the particular gift set of chaplains to local church ministry, there are other professions well-equipped to support the pastor in working on grief, as well. [22]Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit, 2d ed. (Eugene, OR.: Cascade Books, 2007), 2. [23]Psalms 5,6,28,31,40,61,116. [24]Edward P. Wimberly, Recalling Our Own Stories: Spiritual Renewal for Religious Caregivers (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), 6. [25] Ibid. [26] Ibid. [27] Ibid., 8. [28] Ibid.

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